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Life of a warden at Otay Mesa's Donovan prison

"A brand-new inmate will try you"

Robert Hernandez presides over a psychological war zone. At Donovan correctional facility, where Hernandez is warden, every move his officers make is watched by inmates; every word they say is overheard. "Nothing," said one officer, "goes on unnoticed behind those walls." An approachable 51-year-old man, Hernandez has been the warden of R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain since January 2002. The medium- to high-security prison occupies 780 acres on Otay Mesa, two miles north of the Mexican border. "I compare my job to being either a mayor or a city manager," Hernandez said. "I have the same responsibilities. I have a police force, which is my correctional officers. I have a maintenance department, which I'm in charge of. I have a personnel department; I have a training department; we have a records department; I have a fire department. I have warehouses. I have an infirmary here — it's the same as a hospital, except that it's not licensed. I have emergency-response teams, similar to SWAT teams. I have a hostage-negotiation team. And I have an annual budget of $92 million.

"You know, we have the same problems that we have in any municipality out there in the free world," Hernandez said, "except my population here, they're all male felons."

The felons at Donovan have time on their hands and a desire to regain some control over their lives.

"These guys, they're intelligent to a degree," said Officer Parker, "but their satisfaction could be an extra lunch, a cookie, a phone call. It could be 'Hey, I just got the officer to give me information that they normally wouldn't give' or 'I got this officer to compromise his position.' I got one over on the officer, period. That gives satisfaction to them. Power. It's a power struggle. A power trip. That's what they're used to doing, having control. Now that they don't have it, whatever little bit they can get, they'll do it. And it's all day long. It never ends.

"You have to be aware of the ultimate setup," Parker continued, "because you never know when you're being manipulated. And the manipulation doesn't just happen in one day. It can happen over the duration of time through a slowly worked process, and you don't even know it sometimes."

More often than not, movies and the press portray correctional officers as sadistic, abusive monsters, and in California recently, they're portrayed as members of an overpaid, self-serving workforce. They come off looking as bad as the inmates.

Whether it can be attributed to the stressful environment in which they work, to an officer's mental illness issues that get expressed, to a lack by some of human respect, to unhealthy peer pressure among a group of officers, or to an officer's snapping, something occasionally causes correctional officers to misuse their position as sworn peace officers and commit acts of abuse or violence toward inmates. But the officers I spoke with at Donovan said that use of excessive force against prisoners is rare and that the hostility in the prison originates with the inmates.

"Verbal abuse is a part of the job. It's a given," said Williams, a 35-year-old father of six who left corrections four years ago after ten years on the job. "When we're talking about an inmate population, we're not talking for the most part about a highly educated group of people. Just that factor alone lets you know that you're going to deal with a lot of verbal abuse. A lot of the fellows in there don't know how to express themselves minus violence and some sort of hostility, and definitely profanity is something you're going to hear almost every second of the day working in the prison.

"Early on it rattled me," he said. "It definitely scared me. Normal people aren't conditioned to react to profanity, loud talking and yelling and screaming and threats of acts of violence.

"If I were, say, a street cop, the majority of my contacts would be positive contacts," he continued. "The majority of people on the streets are law-abiding citizens or people who may commit minor infractions but for the most part are not violent felons with drug addictions. Vice versa within the prison system: the majority of your contact is with convicted felons, people who have a violent history and past or current drug addictions. It's a much more hostile environment. It's my belief that this is far and away the most dangerous branch of law enforcement. The job is extremely dangerous. The convicts don't have guns, but then it's not necessary for them to have a gun to create some type of havoc or bodily injury."

As a precaution, officers at Donovan do not go by their first names with the inmates, and for this reason their first names are not used here. The officers were also reluctant to speak about their families or personal lives.

Why would anyone be drawn to such a dangerous, unpleasant job? Not one person I talked to had planned on a profession in corrections. Most were looking for a job that promised decent pay, job security, and benefits.

"I've had children since a very early age," explained Williams, the former correctional officer. "I was basically just trying to provide for my family. I had no preconceived ideas about law enforcement. At the age of 20, I applied. I applied to several different agencies: San Diego P.D., Highway Patrol, Chula Vista P.D. Corrections was the first one to hire me."

Officer Cavazos, a 51-year-old female, recalled, "My sister hinted that maybe I should try this job. I thought I wasn't correctional material because I was a hairdresser for ten years. She said, 'Well, if you don't like it, you can always go back to what you're doing.' Because of the benefits that they have, medical and all that, she suggested that I try it. It'll be ten years in November."

"I was encouraged by my dad to get a state job because he knew it would have more job security," said Officer Murillo, a 34-year-old female who's worked at Donovan for 11 years. "I was in college, at Southwestern College, and I went into the jobs office, and I saw this little poster up, and that's where I got the application and filled it out."

Officer Wagner, 41, has been at Donovan since 1996. Before that he managed a Domino's Pizza for ten years, working 60 to 70 hours a week. A friend suggested corrections to him. Wagner said, "You know, just the benefits the department had as compared to the previous job. Domino's paid well, but then there really weren't the benefits for retirement down the road. And most people get burned out."

I asked Warden Hernandez how he happened upon a career in corrections.

"I came into corrections by accident," Hernandez said. "I didn't come out of high school thinking, 'I want to be a correctional officer.' I was working at a glass factory in 1974. I was making $3.10 an hour, which was pretty good at that time. I put about two years in at that company, and the Glass Blowers Association went on strike, so I was out of work for about 30 days. During those 30 days, a good friend of mine who was a correctional officer at DVI, which is in Tracy, California, approached me and said, 'Hey, I understand you're out of work. They're hiring here at this institution.' I told him, 'Okay, I'd be interested.' He said, 'They're testing. Fill out this application and I'll turn it in for you. I think they're going to test in two months.' "

Hernandez went on to take and pass the test, and within two weeks he was interviewed, given a physical, and told to report to work the following Monday. He remembered, "So, I get this notice. I have a three-day orientation. They walked you through the institution. You had some in-service training -- you went over some real minor things like report writing and key control. Then I was told that the following week I would report on a Thursday to work the graveyard shift. I still wasn't prepared. I didn't know what I had to do."

That was in the '70s. Now training lasts 16 weeks and takes place at the Basic Correctional Officer Academy located in Galt, California. The State of California pays for the training and on-site housing. Requirements to enter the California Department of Corrections program have changed as well. To be considered, one must be 21 years old at time of appointment and a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident alien who is eligible for and has applied for U.S. citizenship. Applicants must have education equivalent to completion of 12th grade, meet certain health requirements, and have a history of law-abiding behavior. All applicants who pass the initial tests undergo a physical exam, vision check, psychological evaluation, and a background investigation.

Training is ongoing. "We are obligated to train our officers, and every month they are required to attend in-service training classes," said Lieutenant Ray Marrero, Donovan's public information officer. "Some are refresher courses on anything from weapons requalifications to use of force to sexual harassment to communicable diseases in an institutional setting. They also are required to obtain at least 40 hours of classroom training every year -- aside from their weapons qualifications as well as their qualification for their side-handle batons. There is continuous training, not only in the classroom but on-the-job training out there, as well as what the supervisors provide, inmate/staff interactions...there's a long list of all the training we provide, over a hundred different subjects."

Newly hired officers are paid a minimum beginning salary of $3000 per month. Over time they can make up to $4885 per month. Prisons located in undesirable parts of the state offer higher salaries.

R.J. Donovan is divided into four facilities, each with about 1000 inmates. According to Marrero, the institution employs 550 male and 110 female correctional officers who work three shifts overseeing 4300 male inmates. Marrero estimated the officers' average age at 26.

Donovan is also a reception center, where newly sentenced felons and parole violators, approximately 230 each week, arrive from jails in San Diego County, Imperial County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County. They spend two to three months going through physical and mental examinations and "classification processes" based on the crimes they've committed; then they're sent to the institutions where they will serve out their sentences.

Correctional officers work in a variety of jobs. They might be assigned to a housing unit, to transportation, or to culinary. Officers provide supervision and security in the yard, in the central infirmary, in the vocational training area, or within the inner perimeter.

One of the most dangerous assignments is the Administrative Segregation Unit. "If inmates continue to do criminal activity inside the walls here, I have an area which is called Administrative Segregation, where I lock them up to get them out of the general population," said Warden Hernandez. "Let's say, for instance, I have an inmate who stabs another inmate, or I have an inmate who we catch dealing drugs, or an inmate who's afraid he can't function in the general population for security concerns, then I have a little area where I can lock them up, reclassify them."

"These are units where we keep the bad of the bad," said Marrero, the public information officer. "It's like a jail within a jail. I mean, these inmates get personal. Talking about your family, talking about, you know, your mother, your spouse. They try to assault you by trying to stab you or slice you when you approach the cell."

"I've worked in all areas of the institution," Officer Murillo said. "I've worked on the yard, in the housing units, in the kitchen, in the front -- there was a gate at the front, and I worked there. Right now I'm currently involved with the DDPs, the developmentally disabled inmates."

Officer Estrella, 36, is assigned to the Investigative Services Unit. "I'm an institutional gang investigator at this institution. I specialize in the gangs, all disruptive groups and/or prison gangs validated by the Department of Corrections: the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, the Nuestra Familia. We have a handful of inmates who have either association or membership with these prison gangs and/or disruptive groups. The majority of them are the Skinheads that come out of the East County area of San Diego, and we do have some heavy hitters, some big players in these prison gangs."

Estrella, who looks like a superhero action figure, wears more gear than most officers. He has a tool for retrieving inmates' weapons found in the yard. "We don't want to put our hands on them," he said. "They're either bloody or they've got drugs on them. There are syringes that the inmates manufacture or tattoo guns with hepatitis A through Z."

Another tool he carries opens light sockets. "Light sockets are where inmates hide drugs and paraphernalia," he explained. "We also carry a flashlight for when we are conducting cell searches. We have assigned cameras. These are digital cameras assigned to us when we do crime-scene investigation and/or tattoo identifications on new subjects. When they're on the yard, they're not supposed to have tattoo paraphernalia, and we photograph that stuff."

Officer Wagner also works in the Investigative Services Unit. "We have about 15 different jobs that we can learn inside of investigations. I'm seeing things behind the scenes that a lot of officers don't see. I also like dealing with the outside with evidence, dealing with the courts. Processing of evidence is interesting to me."

Search and Escort is Officer Cavazos's job title. "I primarily deal with the disciplinary-process paperwork," she said, "but I monitor the yard and the feeding and do escorts for inmates if there's any kind of altercation or if they need to be escorted from our facility to the central infirmary or other parts of the institution."

If a riot breaks out or large-scale fighting erupts, the Crisis Response Team is called. "They are just like your SWAT team out in the community," said Marrero. "We have staff trained in tactical and operational types of emergencies here, highly trained individuals that deal with hostage situations. They are on call 24 hours a day here at this institution."

On one of my visits to Donovan, during a tour of the prison, Warden Hernandez and Marrero took me to Facility One, the unit for inmates with mental illness and developmental problems. Leaving the administration building, we strolled to the staff entrance, were processed through two electronically controlled gates, and entered the inner perimeter, which is surrounded by an electrified fence. Eventually we arrived in the Facility One yard, which had a sprinkling of inmates, and entered the housing unit. A male and a female officer stood in the center of the otherwise empty first floor, called the day room. Both were dressed in dark green uniforms with batons attached to their sides. One of them was Officer Murillo.

Warden Hernandez and Murillo described the stark housing unit's features, pointing out the control booth, the backless benches provided for inmates, the shower area, some round tables. Hernandez said, "In about three minutes all the doors will open and the inmates will come out." Marrero asked the officers, "Do you think any of them will come out naked?" "Oh, yeah, they could" was the response, and the officer in the control booth was radioed. Over the loudspeaker, he commanded all inmates to come out fully clothed. The doors on the first floor opened, and disheveled men wandered out, some asking the warden questions, others running back to their cells to fetch letters to the warden. Some ventured outside, a few remained indoors.

A couple of days later I talked to Murillo and Cavazos, who are both female officers, about the nudity issue. "During the day room time they come out to take showers; they line up," said Murillo. "They need to come out with their clothes on, but sometimes they won't, so we have to remind them to come out dressed appropriately and that the only time they take off their clothes is inside the shower. But like I say, with the mentally ill you might have one every so often who comes out naked. I think with the females they'll sometimes try to flaunt their muscles, so we have to let them know right away, 'Go get a T-shirt.' "

Murillo mentioned that occasionally inmates attempt affection with a female officer. "If an inmate tries to hug you, you sort of back off. I've had that before when one of our nutty inmates would try to hug me. I just backed him off and said, 'No, no. You can't do that.' I had another one where I was sitting down and he came and tried to rub my leg, and I'm, like, 'What are you doing? Who told you to do that?' "

In Facility One, these things seem tame, even innocent. But worse happens in other parts of the prison.

"My partner and I were doing a count," said Cavazos, "and, uh, an inmate started playing with his penis while we were doing the count. We have to walk up to the window, look into the window, and physically see the people that are inside the cell. I stopped and said, 'What are you doing? Do you think that you are going to turn us on or something? Because that's not going to happen. You know what, that's a lack of respect for yourself to do that in front of females and a lack of respect of us as females.' Then he said, 'Then they'll think I'm a pervert.' I said, 'Well, you know, if you really want to think about it, you are a pervert,' and then we just kept on doing our count."

"You know what a lot of the females go through is getting flashed," Murillo confirmed. "Inmates actually masturbating in front of them. That's what a lot of us go through. Like when we're doing our counts, we'll have to use our flashlight and we'll walk by and we'll get flashed. That's shocking. That's gross. It's nasty!

"You try to shake it off, and then you try to expose them," she continued. "Tell them to cut it out. Letting the rest of the building know it's not okay. For me, it's shaking it off, and then I guess for myself to feel better, I start telling the inmates, 'You guys need to know this is not acceptable behavior.' When inmates do that to staff, it's not normal. They're sick in the head, and for the most part if we check their file they are in here for rape, they're in here for child molesting. 'You guys are condoning their behavior because you say it's a manhood. You say it's natural. You're going to tell me that rape and child molestation are natural?' "

Most correctional officers at Donovan carry pepper spray, a personal alarm, a side-handle baton, and a whistle. Officer Estrella showed me his pepper spray, a canister the size of a small fire extinguisher. "We spray up to 15 to 20 feet," he said. "We utilize these to stop major altercations on the yards. By the time the security squad gets to the yard after a major incident, the inmates are already lying in a prone position or sitting on their buttocks on the ground. By that time we don't need to use our spray; it's already been used by someone else. At this institution the use of the spray is an everyday occurrence, almost an everyday occurrence."

All correctional officers are trained in firearms, although, in the inner perimeter, only certain posts are designated to be armed.

"Depending on if they're in armed positions they will qualify with departmental firearms every quarter," Marrero said. "For officers who are not in armed positions, they are required to qualify annually." Staff in armed positions includes the officers stationed in observational posts. Marrero added, "Each housing unit has a control booth. That position is armed, and they are responsible to monitor the inmate traffic in the day rooms, and they're also the eyes of the staff that are working in the housing units."

Williams explained why guns are issued so selectively, "Only in certain situations are you allowed to use the gun. Only in certain situations are the guns feasible. If you have a thousand inmates on the yard and you have five officers, and you have one officer getting beat up and there's no weapon involved -- this is real life, this is not like TV where the SWAT guy sits up on top of the roof and shoots into a crowd of people and hits the one person that he's actually aiming at.

"In theory the officers are protected by the guns," he continued, "but in reality the guns protect no one. They just limit the damage. What protects the officers are their communication skills, how well they get along with and deal with variant personalities."

"Not everybody's born with the gift of gab, but you can learn to become a good communicator," said Marrero, the public information officer. "Ninety percent of working corrections is being a good communicator."

"A lot of it has to do with your demeanor," said Murillo. "If you respect them, most of the time they respect you. That helps a lot with the stress. I think the longer you work in the department, the easier it becomes for you, because you have an established rapport with the inmates. Like for myself, it's really good. For the most part if I get disrespected, the inmates get checked by other inmates and I don't even know it. The other inmates will let them know, 'Just leave her alone. She stays out of everybody's way. She's okay.' It just works. I've had inmates who have disrespected me, and in a few minutes they come to me and apologize. It's really stressful when you first start, because you really haven't established a rapport with the inmates and they're always, constantly, trying you out. They're always testing you. They'll approach you and they'll bark at you and if you say 'No,' they'll bark at you, hoping that you're going to back off and give them what they want.

"It also happens when there is a brand-new inmate and he'll try you," she said. "Right away, put them in check, let them know, and don't back off. You can't back off, because if you back off, you show them fear. Then it's worse -- it's really bad, because the other inmates are watching you. They're always watching how you react. If they see that you are scared, you're going to have more inmates doing the same thing."

"Early in my career I had to learn not to respond to the verbal abuse through use of force or by reciprocating the acts," said Williams, the former correctional officer. "It's part of enhancing your communication skills. The first five years for me was basically learning how to listen to what they were saying and not to how they were saying it."

"I think it's worse for the males than it is for the females," Murillo said. "It's not much of a challenge for the inmates to challenge a female, because the way I put it is: 'Look, you're challenging me. If I kick your ass you lose, and if you kick my ass you lose, because the inmates are not going to respect you for beating up on a female.' "

"You can confront individuals, talk to them," Wagner added, "but you've got to have a thicker skin working here and not take everything personal.

"I myself don't get much verbal abuse. I never really have," he said. "The way I've always dealt with inmates was -- their big thing is respect, respect, respect. They want respect from you. They preach it to each other. The word respect. I use it the same as they use it. They want respect, I'm going to treat them with respect. But at the same time, they need to treat me with respect. If they cross the line then we automatically will have a different kind of relationship. Of course, when I say treat them with respect, that doesn't mean I'm going outside any of the boundaries set by the department. It just means that I'm treating them like another fellow human being. I'm not taking pleasure if I do a search and I find something; I'm not rubbing it in their face or anything like that. I'm just doing my job professionally with no bias."

Murillo revealed one means by which she maintains her respect for the inmates. "I try to stay away from their files, to not know what they did, so I don't see them any different. It's very hard once you know what they did to not treat them...treat them like shit. Some of these guys are in here for horrible things, so you try not to look into their files. At least I do."

In the past two years, Murillo said, assaults on officers at Donovan have increased. "We had one officer in the kitchen -- female staff -- who got hit in the head with batteries. That was kind of odd to see, because it was an awakening to the females that any of these guys could come after us too. We're not immune to getting assaulted. She got hit with batteries in a sock. She retired. Her head was shattered and smashed in. They got her really bad.

"And then we had another officer who was hit with batteries in a sock in another facility."

Murillo has been assaulted herself.

"I had an inmate push me," she said. "We were trying to remove him from a cell. He was in the wrong cell. We were trying to move him two doors down, and he agreed. He was going to do it, and when we opened the door he ran away from us. I told him to stop, and he pushed me and hit me in the face. We had to go and tackle him down and the whole thing. That was the first time I had been assaulted in eight years.

"During that eighth year I also got stuck with a needle from a tattoo gun," she added. "The tattoo gun was stored in an inappropriate area, and when I went looking for a pen I poked myself with a needle. I never found out who it belonged to or if it had been used, so I had to go through the treatment and getting tested. Luckily everything came out clear. I didn't catch any hepatitis or AIDS or anything. But it was a tremendous stress on my family. It was horrible. I went and I saw a psychiatrist over it."

"I've dislocated my shoulder responding to an alarm one time when inmates... didn't clean the floor properly, so the floor looked waxed," said Estrella. "It was a setup for all of us, because when we came through we slid around. I ended up landing on my elbow with my baton thrown underneath and dislocated my shoulder. That sticks with me because I could have been assaulted and/or killed in that moment."

While it's clearly traumatic to be assaulted, less obvious are the long-term consequences for officers of repeated exposure, sometimes daily exposure, to situations where they could be assaulted or killed. "We have some days that are really, really busy, where we have two or three fights during the day," said Cavazos, "and you're just, like, running back and forth. We have to respond to the personal alarms that are activated in the housing units and in the mental health services unit. You never know what you're going to run into."

"Every time we have to run to an alarm you feel like it's going to be real, or you respond to a fight or something happening right in front of you, you have to act," said Murillo. "Or you feel like something's going to happen. Your heart just pounds a hundred miles per hour. Your body just goes through tremendous shock, because afterwards everything just hurts. All my muscles hurt. My neck, my shoulders. During the time of whatever is happening, you're pumped up and your adrenaline is going. Afterward you just fall. You can feel your energy just fall.

"That happens at least once or twice a week," she continued. "You start getting jumpy too. So if somebody yells, your senses just start -- or a wrong move, and all it is is an inmate giving another inmate a hug, but because it's a fast move, you think it's going to be a fight."

" 'What if?' is always the question I ask myself," said Estrella. " 'What if?...What if this subject gets off the wall? What if this subject starts striking me as I'm walking by him?' "

"It's real frightening, but it's a way of life for a peace officer," said Parker. "Always looking behind you. Always keeping your eyes open. Watching your surroundings. You become somewhat paranoid of people in general."

With the high incidence of hepatitis and AIDS in California prisons, bodily fluids, a weapon that's readily available to inmates, have become deadly. "They make these concoctions of urine and feces and try to throw it at you, try to hit you in your face," said Marrero. "I can't tell you about the potential for communicable diseases with hepatitis, AIDS, and everything else. That's a very common, common thing that happens, and we have to deal with that. We have to send officers out, get them treated medically, immediately, get them tested. That is a fear. No one wants to bring these diseases home to their family.

"Another thing is spitting," he added. "We have inmates that do that. Spitting, biting. We've had inmates that bite staff who are in the process of trying to restrain them. The fear is, do they break the skin? That is a very high risk."

Inmates also manufacture weapons inside Donovan.

Cavazos explained: "We try not to leave any kind of Styrofoam cups around -- they make weapons out of that. They melt it down. They have 24 hours to just think of ideas. They make weapons out of the wires from the fencing. Ink pens. Just all kinds of things. They're very creative. These are the kind of things the people that work the housing units have to keep on top of, because they're the ones who do the cell searches."

"They fashion weapons out of several things," Wagner elaborated. "They can melt plastic down and make weapons. They can utilize a toothbrush -- what they do is take a razor blade from regular disposable razors, they'll take that blade out, they'll tape it to the toothbrush, make a handle. From some of the shops that we have, any kind of metal that they get, they start sharpening. They'll sharpen it inside their cell by scraping it against the wall. Anything. It can be the typewriter. I don't know if you know that little metal piece that's all the way in the back, they've utilized that before for weapons. Any kind of plastic, a big piece of plastic, they'll just keep doing it till it's a point."

"We provide them razors," Marrero explained, "but sometimes they secret these things in their bodily cavities, and they'll wait for you, they'll wait for you."

Among the officers' most vivid recollections are the ones of knifings that they've witnessed. "I think one of my worst was a slashing that I responded to in one of the housing units," said Murillo. "An inmate had been slashed in the face. He was cut from his ear down to his neck, and he was bleeding a lot. It was gushing out. Another one was that an inmate attempted suicide, and he really did want to die. He cut himself the long way instead of the other way. He was actually yanking on his skin, and when we showed up there were parts of his meat all over the floor. And the blood clots."

"I've seen some stabbings that if you saw the pictures, you'd probably back away at how grotesque they look," said Marrero. "I remember one in particular. One inmate had gotten stabbed multiple times" -- Marrero closed his eyes and shook his head -- "in his stomach, in his neck, in his back. I don't know how he lived. The gashes were deep, so deep. I was the one who had to take him to the hospital. It's really interesting the way they treated him. They cleaned the wounds out, and they put gauze inside the wounds to prevent infection. The minute you start pushing the gauze in there, that inmate was screaming, I mean, at the top of his lungs. I'm looking and I'm, like, where does it stop? The doctor was just putting more and more and more and I'm, like, 'Oh, my God. How deep is that?' They explained it to me that that's how they treat puncture-type wounds. I hear that inmate screaming and what he had to endure. I mean, that could have been a staff member who could have easily gotten stabbed like that. These are things we have to deal with every day. That particular stabbing was probably one of the worst."

"I was involved in an incident where an inmate had been stabbed to death," said Warden Hernandez. "He came out of his cell. I responded to the incident. He was on the second floor. He had a hole the size of a 50-cent coin, hit a jugular vein, and every time he tried to speak when we asked him, 'Who stabbed you?', I'm not trying to make you sick, but the blood gushed, and we put our hands on his neck. Of course, we didn't know anything about blood-borne pathogens back in the '70s, but that's what we did because we didn't have any safety equipment these kids have nowadays."

Hernandez remembered another stabbing that happened at DVI, in Tracy. "It wasn't a homicide, but I think I'd only been a correctional officer for about six months. Well, I had never seen a stabbing before. I was walking down this pathway there, and the thing that separated me and the yard was, of course, a chain-link fence. I was walking and just as I looked at the yard, I saw this inmate, there were two inmates, they were both BGF members -- Black Guerilla Family members -- stabbing another black inmate, and their weapons were probably anywhere from seven to eight inches long, steel, honed down to a fine point with a cloth handle. I observed that for what seemed to be five minutes, but it was probably just seconds. I was close enough to watch where they were thrusting, and I saw the weapon going in and out and the inmate was flinging his arms, trying to fight them off. That alone, with a couple of other murders I was involved with, are the incidents I occasionally think about."

Even when officers go home after work, their lives are still in danger. Officer Parker explained why: "These guys parole. They live in our neighborhoods."

For that reason, none of the officers ever appears in uniform in public.

"I drive home with this uniform on," said Wagner, "but I put on a cover shirt over it, and if it's winter, I'll throw a jacket over it. Basically, you don't want the wrong person to see you when you're driving home with your CDC [California Department of Corrections] patches just sticking out the window."

"When I enter my vehicle I put a cover jacket on or a shirt or I roll down the top portion of my jumpsuit because of the paroled felons that are on the streets," Estrella said.

All but one of the officers I talked to owned a gun; many carried a gun in their vehicles. "A lot of officers have off-duty weapons," said Marrero, "and what they will do is, when they report to the institution, there is an armory outside the institution where they are able to secure their off-duty weapons before they report to their posts. When they leave, they retrieve them."

Marrero said that as soon as he gets home, he takes a shower, "because I smell like the prison, you know. There's a distinct prison smell that sticks on you, and you need to wash that off. You're constantly washing your hands during the course of the day, even though you're wearing gloves whenever you're patting down inmates and stuff. I'm working in this administration position, and I still wash my hands constantly."

"I try to turn myself off when I leave the prison," said Murillo, "not take whatever I went through at work home, because I think that's when you can start barking at your family, when your problem was at work, not with your family."

"I've always told my staff," said Marrero, "when you leave the gate, leave it at the gate. Don't take it home, because it'll eat you up. When I'm home I'm a father, I'm a husband. I'm in a different role. Do I discuss what I've dealt with on a daily basis with my wife or my kids? No, I don't. I don't generally do that. I spend time with my family and talk about other things. That brings me back down to ground zero."

Williams, the former correctional officer, remembered how he dealt with the frustrations of his job. "There were times when I left the prison -- level 10 being the highest for frustration -- and I was at level 8. But I was smart enough to take my alone time. There were times when I knew I wasn't ready for the regular world, for the real world. If I got off at two o'clock and I was still at level 8, I either took a detour before I went home, or when I went home I went to my bedroom, closed my door, and gave myself an hour of cool-down time."

"I try not to share disturbing stories," Warden Hernandez said. "I try not to tell my spouse too much and get her wrapped up in some of the unsavory things that happen in the prison."

Cavazos was of the same mind-set. "I usually don't share anything with my family unless it's something really funny."

Wagner said talking with his wife alleviates some of his stress. "I share probably more than other officers. I communicate with her a lot and let her know different things that are going on here. She's always curious."

Murillo's husband, even before her assault and run-in with the needle, wanted her to quit her job, but because of debt she needed to work. Since the incidents, she said, "My husband wanted me to quit, but I don't want to quit. It's a good job. It's not really so much the money. I could always help my dad in business. I think it's having something for myself. Having my own identity. Having control. I just feel like I have control of my life."

Williams wife had also worked in corrections. "My wife didn't like it," he said. "She didn't like it at all. She left before I did, and she really encouraged me to leave."

Marrero said, "My wife, early on, when I first started, always had a concern that something bad would happen, but her skin's gotten toughened over the years too. She's made the adjustment."

Warden Hernandez's wife has two brothers who work in corrections. "She was raised with it, and she's okay with what I do," he said. "She's been with me since I was an officer to where I'm at now, and she doesn't have a problem with it."

The job is enough to make one grind one's teeth at night, but only one correctional officer, who did not want to be identified, admitted to teeth-grinding.

Any type of job-related stress can be addressed by the state's Employee Assistance Program. The program, which is available to all state civil servants and their families, offers psychological services, attorney services, and social work services.

Also available at each correctional institution is an employee post-trauma team. "We have specialized staff members trained in providing post-trauma," said Marrero. "They'll be assigned to an employee. They'll walk them through it. They'll be their best friend through the whole incident."

Murillo, after both her incidents, availed herself of the institution's help. "I was on medication, and I was going to psychiatric evaluation. And when I got pushed, I was going to the chiropractor. Everything is there for you, so when stuff like that happens, the services are there."

"I was in counseling several times throughout my ten-year career," offered Williams. "That was one of the avenues I used to help me cope with what I had to cope with while working in the prison." But in the end, for Williams, leaving the job was the best resolution. "Probably the last two years, for me, there were few outlets that were effective for me to be functional. That was one of the reasons why it was time for me to exit. It becomes more and more a part of you. It's that old saying, 'You can't kill a monster without becoming a monster.' Or, the analogy that I like to use best: if you're walking down the street and you step in a pile of dog poop, the dog poop doesn't smell like the Polo cologne that you're wearing. You smell like the dog poop, and nobody smells the Polo cologne. I use that analogy to say that when you have a bunch of good people who are put into a negative environment, it's inevitable that the negativity is going to override anything positive."

Almost all the officers spoke with humility when asked if they ever think that had circumstances been different, they might have been serving as inmates rather than as officers.

"Most definitely," said Parker. "Any one of us could. And to this day we still could. It never changes. The fact of it is, you just have to make good choices. Thank God my mom was as strict as she was. She was so strict I didn't really get to spend a whole lot of time out on the streets as a child, because she didn't want us to grow up doing a whole lot of bad things. She wanted to know where we were at all times. She wanted to keep a tight rope on us. But, yeah, I could have easily fallen into this. We have it happening all over the world, where people lose it for one minute, or you hear that someone went on a rampage out in a neighborhood and started shooting up people. You just never know what snaps people."

"I wasn't raised with a silver spoon in my mouth," said Warden Hernandez. "I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks. It's funny that you asked that -- I just went to a funeral. One of my best friends in junior high and high school had hepatitis C. He was a drug user. When we were kids running around the streets together, he decided to take a left turn and I took a right. We still remained friends. There but for the grace of God, it could have been me."

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